December 6, 2013

The NSFW Files: "The Piano Teacher," by Elfriede Jelinek

The NSFW Files | A CCLaP essay series

(Once a month through 2013, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff investigates literature of a more carnal kind with The NSFW Files. Despite being erotic, is there literary value to be found? For all the essays in this
series, please click here.)

The Piano Teacher, by Elfriede Jelinek

The Piano Teacher
by Elfriede Jelinek
Review by Karl Wolff
Personal History: Every once in a while, the Swedish Academy awards the Nobel Prize in Literature to someone you've never heard of. In my case, it was Elfriede Jelinek. When she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2004, a storm of controversy erupted. Knut Ahnlund resigned in protest, saying her work was "whining, unenjoyable public pornography" and "a mass of text shovelled together without artistic structure." A Nobel laureate's work likened to pornography? I became immediately interested in finding Jelinek's work. As with several other authors in this series, this is the first time I've read anything by Elfriede Jelinek and I read it "cold." (For those who haven't read The Piano Teacher and want to read it, stop reading this essay right now. Everything below will inevitably involve spoilers, historical and cultural context, and my opinion on the book. Reading those things would ruin your initial reading experience. Caveat lector.)

The History: Elfriede Jelinek is Austrian. This is an important distinction in German-language literature. While Germany and Austria share the same language, they are radically different cultures. Germany became unified in a series of nationalistic wars in the 1860s and reigned triumphant with their victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Then the World Wars happened, followed by the economic miracle, and eventual unification between East and West Germany. Following the First World War, Austria was lopped off from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a multinational, multiethnic imperial entity that had been ruled by the Hapsburg dynasty for centuries. (The Austro-Hungarian Empire also included the nations that made up Yugoslavia, as well as Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Romania.) A German-speaking aristocracy ran the government and supplied candidates to the officer corps. Non-German speakers were one rung lower on the social hierarchy.

Unlike Germany, with its mix of Lutherans and Catholics, Austria is almost entirely Catholic. For centuries, the Austrian monarchy provided Catholic brides to European kings. Marie Antoinette came from Austria. During the early modern period, Austria saw itself as the bulwark against the Muslim hordes of Asia and the Ottoman Empire. Hitler was also born in Austria.

In addition to this cultural background, Austria has a rich literary tradition. Writers, philosophers, and intellectuals include Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Thomas Bernhard, Sigmund Freud, Karl Kraus, Arthur Schnitzler, Joseph Roth, and Robert Musil. There are many, many more. Elfriede Jelinek is part of this tradition. Her relentless, bleak, yet darkly comic style is reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard and her acidic bon mots burn like those from Karl Kraus. Kraus summed up the Austrian national character, saying, "Prussia: Freedom of movement, with a muzzle. Austria: Solitary confinement, with permission to scream." (This reads like a two-sentence summary of The Piano Teacher.) "In Berlin you walk on papier mache, in Vienna you bite granite."

Elfriede Jelinek distills the suffocating, bureaucratic, culture-soaked decadence, Catholic sexual repression, and her nation's culpability in Nazi criminality and turns it into a lacerating novel about love, sex, and desperation. Written in 1983, The Piano Teacher can be considered "contemporary fiction."

The Book: The Piano Teacher is a story about relationships. Erika Kohut teaches piano at the Vienna Conservatory and lives with her mother. After having failed a major recital, Erika's destiny to become a famous concert pianist is destroyed. Her mother, a monstrous showbiz mom right out of Toddlers & Tiaras, shepherds her daughter into becoming a piano teacher. When she can, Erika escapes the suffocating micromanagement of her mother to watch sex shows and visit porn stores in Vienna's darker corners.

Then she meets Walter Klemmer, an engineering student studying piano. He is a young student and Erika is approaching forty. Walter thinks he can get sexual experience from Erika. Erika desperately desires Walter to be her lover. Erika punishes herself for such naughty thoughts by cutting herself. Unlike other professionals, Erika shares an apartment with her mother, gives her mother her paychecks, and sleeps with mother in the same bed. (As far as well-adjusted parent-child relationships, Erika and her mother make Norman Bates and his mother seem normal.)

Erika is hen-pecked by her mother, reprimanded and guilt-tripped for buying a dress. She would like nothing more than to escape the clutches of her mother, but she can't seem to muster the will power. Each are dangerously co-dependent on each other. The novel also tells us how her father was driven insane by her mother.

In order to jumpstart the affair, Erika flirts with Walter. They eventually kiss in the Conservatory's bathroom. Walter hopes he can get Erika to consummate the relationship. Unfortunately, Erika pleasures him, but refuses to bring the act to completion. The stillborn affair enters a black tailspin when she gives Walter a letter. The letter pleads with Walter. It says he can do whatever he wants with her, including tying her up and beating her. Walter is disgusted. The novel ends with Erika locking her mother in her bedroom and begging Walter to have sex with her. Walter ends up raping her and beating her. After her recovery, she gets a knife and prepares to find Walter to stab him. She chickens out, instead using the knife to cut herself and then walking back to the apartment and back to Mother.

The Verdict: This was one of the few books that effected me physically. The only other books that have done that have been those written by the Marquis de Sade. I had to put it down after reading one or two chapters. Jelinek's style alienates, intimidates, and mocks. The Swedish Academy said she has a "musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's cliches and their subjugating power." These voices and counter-voices resound throughout the novel. Mother tells Erika she must teach in order to school people in the value of the arts. Then Mother tells Erika that the people coming to her recitals are nothing but philistine poseurs who know nothing about art. Walter, sexually immature, will stop at nothing to possess Erika. Yet he finds her desperation disgusting and he calls her ugly. Again and again, pretensions are raised high and then dashed against the rocks with merciless efficiency. It reminds me of Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West.

While Jelinek has roots in Communist and feminist ideologies, The Piano Teacher transcends being mere agitprop for some specific agenda. The book's ferocity is relentless and omnicidal. It attacks everyone and everything. Jelinek is like an Austrian version of Kathy Acker. The book takes everyday cliches and spits them back at the reader's face.

Granted, this book isn't for everybody. It lacks a redemptive arc and every character is morally contemptible. Lacking conventional dialogue and filled with dream sequences and hallucinations, it is a challenge to read.

Is it erotica? Or pornography? Hardly. While the book pulsates with sexual derangement and obsession, it is the least erotic thing I've read. Sexuality is treated as yet another power game with Erika, Klemmer, and Mother as a trio of self-destructive con artists. While this is challenging literature written with savage beauty, the eroticism is curdled and rancid, since every relationship remains infused with a numbed toxic hatred.
Read even more about The Piano Teacher: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
Coming next: The Ages of Lulu, by Almudena Grandes

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, December 6, 2013. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |